The Kings of Leon took more than musical cues when they opened a concert tour for U2 a few years back. They learned that ambition is not a dirty word.
That lesson is evident on Come Around Sundown, the rock band’s first collection of music since the hits Sex on Fire and Use Somebody made them Grammy-winning stars. The album cover’s palm trees recall the Eagles’ Hotel California (16 million sold) and the music inside is epic and inviting.
“If the world is looking for a big band from our generation, we at least want to give it a shot,’’ said 28-year-old singer Caleb Followill, one of three brothers and a cousin in the group named for his grandfather. “We’ll put ourselves up there against anyone because we’re very competitive and we’re family. Yeah, we’ll give it a shot. I’m not afraid to at least try.’’
The admission cuts against the grain of an ambivalence toward success that has run strong in the rock ’n’ roll world, coinciding with its diminished influence as a force in popular culture, and the Kings’ own wrestling with good fortune.
The Beatles and Elvis Presley never thought twice about wanting to be big stars. The attitude is different today, perhaps dating to Bruce Springsteen’s pulling back from his Born in the USA stardom and, especially, the suspicion that Pearl Jam and Nirvana felt about popularity. An underground ethos took hold. Most rock artists prefer being part of a subculture and do not make the effort to break through to a wider audience, said Brian Hiatt, senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine.
“It has kind of messed with fans’ heads and confused fans about what is acceptable and what is not,’’ he said. The quality of work almost doesn’t matter; many fans will simply dump a band when they become popular,” he said.
For four albums, the Kings of Leon were underground darlings in the US, with more mainstream appeal overseas. Things changed with the Only by the Night disc in 2008. Buoyed by the hit songs, it sold north of 6 million copies.
That messed with the Nashville, Tennessee-based band’s heads.
Followill told Spin magazine that they got bigger than they wanted to be. “You feel like you’ve done something wrong,” he told the magazine in December of last year, in a quote he’d live to regret.
“That woman in mom jeans who never let me date her daughter? She likes my music ... Not cool,’’ he said.
Kings of Leon were approached to
have their music covered on the Fox television musical series Glee and turned down the opportunity.
Hiatt can see where the band is coming from.
“If you want to be a rock star, you have to keep your credibility,” he said. “You need to be offending someone.”
Followill acknowledged this week that the popularity initially scared him, making him wonder if he had lost his edge. That is when he thought back to his time spent with U2, one of the few remaining rock bands that can fill a stadium yet remain a creative force.
It is not a bad life, traveling to gigs in plush jets instead of drafty vans.
“You have to step up to the plate and say, ‘All right, do I have it in me to be one of the biggest bands?’’’ he said. “Even though that’s a lofty goal, you have to come to terms and say, ‘Can I take the pressure?’ We all agreed that we could. There are definitely times where we are second-guessing and wondering why we thought that because there is so much negative that comes along with the positive. People are going to hate you and people are going to want to see you fail because you reach a certain level.”